This post features blackjack games to avoid (and why).
Blackjack basic strategy gives players the best chance of beating the house. The average return-to-player, under ideal game conditions, is close to 100%. It’s easy to play at a close-to-break-even point. You could take my grandmother to Vegas, stick a strategy card in her hand, give her $1,000, and she might walk away with a profit.
It took casinos approximately fifteen nanoseconds to figure out that they can make tiny changes to games that are basically imperceptible to players but increase their profits significantly over time. Basically, they can tweak the pay tables in tiny increments that put big money in their coffers.
In this post, I’ll share four examples of blackjack rule variations that do nothing but stick it to players. The idea here is to help you identify the games that give you the best shot at winnings as well as those that are unnecessarily friendly to the house.
Any 6-5 Blackjack Game
Read enough blackjack strategy online and you’ll soon be sick of reading the “6-5” descriptor.
What does it mean? This is an offhand way to refer to the game’s payout for a natural blackjack. If you draw a point total of 21 on your first two cards, you’re said to have drawn a “natural,” and there’s a bonus payout to match.
Traditionally, that payout was 3-2, or $15 for every $10 wagered. At 6-5, that same payout would be just $12. That loss of a potential $3 for $10 bet makes a big difference in the player’s odds, granting the casino an additional advantage of 1.39%.
Why does this trick work? When casinos first introduced 6-5 pay tables, most players either didn’t notice at all, or figured 6-5 is close enough to 3-2 and it probably didn’t make much of a difference. Still other players wouldn’t care even if you sat down and explained it to them. Basically, casinos offer 6-5 blackjack games because they can.
Another thing designers of 6-5 games do to hide their ugliness is surround it with gimmicks and other distractions. Most blackjack machine games with a progressive side bet pay out 6-5 for a natural, and the same goes for branded blackjack games and other oddball variants.
When your neighborhood gambling hall offers 3-2 games, you don’t have much of a reason to choose a 6-5 payout instead, unless that 6-5 game has some feature that makes you want to play despite the 1.39% disadvantage.
Any Blackjack Game with Side Bets
These days, you see more and more blackjack side bets and progressive wagers and things creeping into traditional table games. This is especially true among electronic or machine version of slots and video poker. But side wagers are by no means confined to the machine gaming section of the casino.
If you want to avoid blackjack variants with bad odds, you’d do well to avoid any game that offers a side bet. It’s not enough to play the game and skip placing the side wager itself – you should probably check the pay table, look up the game’s odds, and decide if the edge you’re giving the casino is worth it.
Let’s take a quick look at two popular side bets you’ll find in some blackjack games, so you have an idea of how the addition of these wagers is a red flag about the game as a whole:
Perfect Pairs Blackjack
Perfect Pairs pays out bonuses to players who form certain combinations of cards during a round of blackjack. To become eligible for these payouts, you have to place a standard per-hand side bet. The payouts are enticingly large, but the increase in advantage to the house is even more remarkable.
The house edge on this side wager is 6-8%. It just depends on the number of decks being used. Considering the house edge on the basic blackjack game is 0.5%, this Perfect Pairs wager is like a hand-wrapped gift from you to the house. The only possible reason I can think of to play it is if you just happen to really enjoy the game. If it improves your entertainment value, by all means, go for it.
21 + 3 Blackjack
21 + 3 side bet blackjack games are even worse than Perfect Pairs in terms of house advantage. Placing this side bet gives the house an edge of between 7-9%, depending on the number of decks in the game. Again, this is such a huge jump compared to the standard game, you’re giving the casino money for nothing when you play 21 + 3 side bet games.
Bonus Spin Blackjack
One of the nuttiest blackjack variants I’ve seen in brick & mortar and online casinos is this bonus spin version. You’ll find some version of bonus spin games from all the major manufacturers. The rules and numbers may vary a bit, but the basics of the game are the same.
In bonus spin blackjack games, players are offered a fixed per-round side bet (typically $1) which makes them eligible for various prizes and jackpots. Without making the $1 fixed-size bet, players won’t have access to the wheel. In some versions, the wheel spins regardless of whether or not you placed the bet, which stings a little, especially when you “hit” a big jackpot.
I’ve seen layouts where the house has an edge of around 8% on this bet, and others where the edge was around 12%. Again, remember that blackjack is meant to be a low-risk situation for bettors provided they follow basic game strategy. Giving the casino 12% in a game where they tend to get less than 1% of an edge is like volunteering to be mugged.
An even worse trend is one where the game forces you to make the $1 side bet on each hand. That takes choice out of the matter entirely and affects the RTP of the entire game. Avoid this.
Free Bet Blackjack
I’m not going to spend too much time picking this game apart or describing it in great detail – it’s by far my least favorite version of blackjack and the one I tell people to avoid more often than any other.
Basically, this game lets players make certain moves without spending any chips – players can double down and do some other functions “for free.” In exchange, the casino institutes one of the worst rules I can imagine – dealers busts of 22 are considered “push.”
Understand that the dealer only has 5 bust numbers, 22 through 26. Under this rule, 22 (by far the most common bust number) is taken off the table. It gives the casino a huge boost odds-wise while managing to seem essentially benign. After all, the player isn’t losing – only tying.
This one rule change grants the house an additional 6.91% edge all on its own. We talked about 6-5 blackjack being a huge disadvantage, but that one rule only moved the odds a little under 2% in the direction of the house. When a dealer bust on 22 is considered a push, you’re handing the casino an extra $7 for every $100 you play.
That’s highway robbery.
Why do people choose to play a game like Free Bet Blackjack? That word “free” in the title is the key. Yes, in some ways, this is a cheaper game to play, from the bettor’s perspective. It’s only over time, and after scrutiny of the pay table and game rules, that you find out how the casino manages to pay for those so-called free bets.
Guess what, it comes out of your end.
Conclusion – Blackjack Games to Avoid
I offered this post to people looking for blackjack games that set them up for the best chance at winning. This by no means should be taken as “can’t-miss” advice. Lots of people win money and have a blast playing the supposedly forbidden games above.
Feel free to completely ignore the advice in this post.
Why would a person want to play a game that someone else says they should avoid? Maybe your favorite game in the casino just happens to pay 6-5 for a natural blackjack. If you have more fun playing this game than one with “better odds,” you should stick to it. We’re all at the casino to have a good time.
Another reason to ignore me – you think you have a good strategy idea, and you plan on trying it out. By all means, and so long as you stick to your budget, try out your strategy. Don’t take me at face value, put the rubber to the road and see if you can prove me wrong.
I know gamblers who intentionally fly in the face of boilerplate gaming advice. Some of these guys are mavericks, rebels without a cause, people who leave salt shakers unscrewed and push all the buttons in the elevator when they leave. If you’re one of these people, and this helps you get more bang for your buck, who am I to judge?
Be sure to come back and tell us about your adventures with blackjack games to avoid in the comments section.